China, Transportation, Travel

Xi’an Taxis 101

My life in Xi’an is ruled by the teacher’s shuttle bus. Don’t get me wrong—I am very very grateful for the shuttle bus without which I could not live in my lovely neighborhood. However, it angers me that I am so dependent on the shuttle bus when there are seemingly other options that could get me where I’m going on time. Actually there are lots of them—yellow and green VW Jettas that make a mockery of the institution of taxicabs, destroying all of my naïve preconceptions and we’ll just throw in my hopes and dreams as well.

Let’s start with the naïve preconceptions. As a California suburbanite taxis were truly something seen only in the movies. Taxis—as I understood them—were very responsive to hand signals and whistles. One had to merely stand on a curb and throw up one’s arm or umbrella (1-2-3 Hail!*) and a taxicab would come racing to a halt with all the enthusiasm of a dog returning with its ball. Upon dropping off a fare, taxi drivers were already on the scent of the next, peeling away and weaving back into the flow of traffic. Fast, efficient, eager—that’s a taxi.

I rode in a taxi only once in my entire childhood. This solitary time came when our loyal Dodge Caravan, “Big Blue,” broke broke down in San Francisco during a family excursion. After getting our van to a garage, our family of five piled in a cab and continued with our plans for the day. In my memory it hasn’t seemed at all difficult to get a cab. It was as it had been shown to me in movies, you just stood on the curb for a few minutes and—voila! A taxicab!

This experience did not prepare me well for Xi’an. It allowed me to hold onto the obviously false belief that taxis serve at the passenger’s need. Though in Hangzhou there were signs of my future trouble. A short visit during Spring Festival introduced me to the disturbing phenomenon of taxis simply refusing to take you where you needed to go. The dismissive wave of the hand, that dreaded horizontal shake of the head. I was dumbfounded. Taxis turning down fares? What did they think they were?

Upon arriving in Xi’an I assumed that taxi drivers would be eager for my patronage, especially since I was a guaranteed 60 RMB fare. A creative driver could get that even higher (65! 70 RMB!) by taking me on the “scenic route.”** However, in fact, drivers recoiled from destination as I do from the scent of stinky tofu. I quickly learned that it is far more trouble than it is worth to deviate from the school’s spartan shuttle bus schedule.

However, this semester has thrown a hitch into my dutiful riding of the school shuttle by requiring me to miss the afternoon pick-up. I am now tossed into the wild seas of needing a taxi for a long fare at the worst possible time of day—the taxi change-over time. I smugly thought I had a solution to this problem—a private car. Through my work I thought I could arrange someone to pick me up and take me out to my college, thereby dusting my hands of that problem. My colleague though, in her most matter-of-fact text message to date, told me that no one would do that. No one? Did people stop needing money or gainful employment? What’s going on with the world?!?

On Monday I allowed myself a generous 2 ½ hours to get out to my college. I told myself it wouldn’t be so bad—think positive! You’ll get a taxi! I paced the street anxiously, checking the time often. Even when I could get an available taxi to talk to me they, of course, didn’t want to go out to my college. After 30 minutes, I decided I couldn’t wait much longer; I needed to make a decision: keep waiting or go catch a bus. I could take a city bus up to where it connected with one of the two subway lines in Xi’an and take the subway to the end of the line at the train station where their was a true taxi stand—dozens of taxis all lined up ready to go (in theory). Not feeling confident enough to risk it, I caught a bus and enjoyed a packed bus ride and packed subway ride.

At the train station, I was happy that there was a train disembarking and there was a line at the taxi stand. (If that doesn’t make any sense to you, that’s because you haven’t lived in Xi’an.) I’ll only say that a line of fares provides cover—the taxi pulls up, you get in, and it drives away. There’s much less chance of refusal.

However, even here I wasn’t safe. Upon telling the driver where I need to go—a destination only about 10 minutes away—he is extremely peeved, lots of grousing, eyebrows down, scowls abound. And why might he be so vexed? Oh, probably because he wanted a longer fare. And he would have had a longer fare if he would just come down to my neighborhood or had one of his cronies deign to pick me up. Oh, and did I mention that he immediately turned off the meter? Now I’m going to have to pay more because HE’S inconvenienced by my destination. If there’s going to be a contest for more aggrieved person in that car I’ll be DARNED if he’s going to win!

In summary: I can’t get a taxi from downtown because it’s too far away; I can’t get one from the train station because it’s too close. I clearly need a taxi pick-up that’s JUST RIGHT. And where, might I ask, would that be, oh tetchy taxi drivers of Xi’an?

* For The Avengers fans in my life—you know who you are! (No, not the comic book ones—the other, classier ones.)

**Little did they know that I tracked their routes on my phone and got smart to their tricky ways.

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China

Signs of Life

From August to December of 2013 the author of “Normal” Life suffered a severe case of Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Semester which resulted in the cessation of all blogging activities. The origins of this survivable, but extremely demoralizing condition were complex and there were a number of contributing factors. The patient suffering under this terrible horrible condition was fortunately removed from the environment for a period of two months and appeared to recover, but reentry in the original environment may or may not cause a relapse. The impact of certain changes to the professional and social landscape has yet to be determined. Doctors will be monitoring closely. Expect regular updates.

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China

In the Big “League” Now

At a slightly later age than the norm I have finally reached the Ivy League. Apartments, that is. This name seems appropriate in that my complex is directly across the street from Xi’an Jiaotong University, which is a Tier 1 Chinese university. Ivy League, indeed.

The apartment was passed down to me by my predecessor. Shortly after I was hired in May I received a flood of photos in my email inbox and several request for a decision about whether the lease should be renewed. On the basis of photos and verbal assurances alone, I accepted. By carrying over the lease I also had the side benefit of moving into an almost entirely furnished apartment. With the arrival of my boxes from Zhuhai I felt I managed to sidestep most of the fitting-out-of-the-apartment phase.

The thing that tickled me about the apartment initially wouldn’t even warrant a raised eyebrow from a local—it’s on the 30th floor. Oooooo. I think I would have to move to New York City for that to be even somewhat commonplace. However in Xi’an from my perch my view is littered with buildings of a similar height or even taller.

There are, of course, elevators in my building and the ride to my floor does not actually take very long. Though there are days when I must control my desire to pace around like some caged animal. Forgetting something upstairs has a heavier psychological burden than it does in real minutes wasted. And once I am upstairs going down seems like much more trouble than it really is. There’s been many a day when I’ve pondered whether I can survive without my next meal due to the perceived trial of going downstairs. Have there been studies about this condition? It is just me?

My apartment is really far larger than a single gal like me needs. Which means that my clothes and shoes and scarves and books have a huge space in which is disperse and seemingly multiply. The different areas of the apartment have garnered very specific functions in my mind. The “dining room” is my staging area, meaning it’s covered in various bottles, books, and bags. The covered balcony is the sun room and/or morning reading room. The large sectional sofa is the functional center of the apartment and has three zones. The left-hand side is the guitar zone, the corner is for semi-reclining reading, and the right side is for watching TV. The second bedroom is the “office,” which I forcibly put myself in when it is time for some dedicated working. (I spend far too much time enjoying the various sofa zones.) The bedroom I initially didn’t like very much. It was all sharp corners and tight walkways, but one evening spent dragging and pushing and pulling the furniture around got me an arrangement that I like.

Living on the 30th floor I have had few pest problems, unlike last year when I lived on the second floor and had a higher number of mouse and cockroach encounters than I was altogether comfortable with. On the downside windy days mean sleepless nights as all my doors and windows rattle horribly and the wind whistles through them. As far as general city living issues, there is also a lot of light and noise pollution, even at night. There are two buildings being constructed right across from me and work never seems to stop.

On the positive side, every evening is like a communal concert. If I leave the windows open I will enjoy a number of public “performances” from residents practicing their various musical instruments. There are at least two pianists, I think, as well as a saxophonist and some traditional flute-like instrument. I also get to listen to the “bells” of the senior high school below me and be amused by their morning exercises that are broadcast starting around 7 AM.

A final story of note in regards to living in a tall building: you may be at the mercy of mischievous youngsters. On several occasions I have gotten into the elevator only to see the work of a childish hand—every single floor button pushed on the panel, from 1 to 33. You see it in the movies and you laugh—but just wait until you experience it!

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**Note on the slideshow: I must admit that theses are actually the photos from my predecessor. Looks much the same, just minus some the framed paintings and rugs.

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China, Travel

Getting to Know You: Xi’an

When looking at a map of China, it has been noted that there is some resemblance to a certain feathered fowl in profile. There’s the big feathered backside of Xinjiang, the neck and head of the northeast and a nice slopping tummy of coastal provinces. If one uses that mental image to assist in locating my current placement then one should look right in the middle—top of the wing height—and you should spot my city. If you threw a dart at a map of China, you might have money coming to you if you hit Xi’an. It’s not the bull’s-eye, but it’s pretty darn close!

Xi'an Map

Now, some of you might be wondering about the apostrophe in its name. Actually, probably the first thing you’re wondering about is how to pronounce that ‘x’! Of course real Mandarin uses characters, but China also has a standardized system for using Roman letters, called ‘pinyin’, for which foreigners are very grateful.

In short, Mandarin has two “sh”-type sounds, neither of which is the same as the English “sh”. The ‘x’ is a “sh”-sound in the front of your mouth with lips more widely spread. It’s like you’re getting ready to smile. The ‘an’ uses a soft ‘a’—a Spanish “Ana” rather than an English “Anna”. Okay, now you are ready! Smile and say “Xi’an!” Great job.

Now, the apostrophe is due to the fact that there exists in Mandarin the syllable “xian” which be represented by a single character and be pronounced differently according to the rules of pinyin. So the apostrophe alerts us to the fact that we need to pronounce each part separately. It’s not one syllable, but two. Good?

Xi’an’s been around for awhile—a mere 3000 years or so. With all that history to play with, it’s had a few name changes. From our comfortable seat in the present, going back and then fast forwarding through all the changes seems like a Mickey Mouse VHS complete with the high pitch squeaking of voices. Fenghao! Chang’an! Daxing! Xi’an! Fengyuan! Anxi! Jingzhao! Xijing! Xi’an! Sheesh. “Xi” means ‘west’ and “an” means ‘peace,’ so all together it can be understood as “western peace.” Peace is good.

With all that history, Xi’an has a lot to offer in terms of historical sites, the most famous of which is the Terracotta Warriors of the Emperor Qin Shi Huang. It also has an intact city wall upon which one can ride bicycles. It has pagodas, and palaces, and parks—oh my! It also has a lot of noodles and buns and other tasty snacks. And most importantly—it has me! (So come visit!**)

**It was reported to me that this past spring there was an exhibition of Terracotta Warriors at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. Those who saw it said it was very good. That’s very nice—I’m happy they had a good time. However, certain people who saw said exhibition seemed to imply that having seen said exhibition no longer felt any need or inclination to come visit Xi’an as they had already seen what Xi’an had to offer. Ahem. I respectfully think that’s kind of missing the point. If you’ve already seen the Golden Gate Bridge, should you not come visit San Francisco? I’m trying to appeal to logic, but I’m not above wheedling and, of course, begging is still on the table.

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China, Travel, University Teaching

The New Job

As usual, what was intended to be a brief explanation has turned into 800+ words of long, reflective, somewhat emotional blogging. For those of you with limited time, please feel free to read to your capacity. I would humbly recommend the summary and possibly the pros and cons. For those with lots of time wanting the full, delightfully wordy scoop–read on, dear reader!

Summary: For the 2013-2014 academic year I will be working for a respected Midwestern university* but on site with their partner university in China. Students enroll in our program at the Chinese university with the intention of transferring to the American university within one or two years. My “mission” is to get the students fully admitted to the university, prepare them for the transition, and give them the tools to succeed once they are there. (Whew!) My job title is “lecturer” which seems slightly misleading. No, I will not be dispassionately delivering lectures to long rows of seated students in echo-y auditoriums. Instead, I will need to be some combination of marketer, cheerleader, teacher, administrator, counselor, and coach to give the program vision, to keep up enrollment, to develop students and set them up for success in the USA. It’s a tall order.

I have helpfully prepared a list of the pros and cons as I currently see them to give you a peek into how I feel about this new job.

The Pros:
I am employed by an American university.
(I have BENEFITS! Dios mio! BENEFITS! Can you believe it!?! )
They provide a very nice 2 bedroom apartment in a good area (Visitors, puh-lease!!)
And roundtrip airfares.
They brought me to the campus for “orientation” and paid for everything. (I can submit receipts for reimbursement. Whoa.)
They gave me a work laptop. (A MacBook!)
Business cards (Squee!)
I still get to work overseas.

The Cons:
I am the ONLY foreigner onsite for our program in China.
I am one of TWO foreigners at the Chinese university.
Our entire program in China consists of me and a Chinese office manager.
There’s been a lot of transition in the program and nothing has been well documented.
I was told there was a curriculum but there’s really not.
I still work overseas. (Note inclusion on both pro/con lists. Placement depends on the day)
I still work in a country where I no comprendo the lingo. (Sí, dos años en china y todavía no hablo chines. Soy una persona horrible. Yo sé.)

If you’ve reached maximum capacity on hearing about Amy’s new job you may stop reading here. I think you’ve got the jist.

For those wanting more touchy-feely details, read on:

The Longer Version: This job was one of those jobs where you apply with little expectation of ever hearing back. I was surprised to be contacted. There was an initial Skype interview at 11 o’clock at night where I disagreed with one of the interviewers and thought I’d never hear from them again. (Funny story: I actually thought the interview was at midnight and only was in the apartment by chance.) But I heard from them again. A second interview and then a third.

The more I talked to the interviewers the more I was intrigued. They seemed like nice people, with an understanding of what it’s like to work in China, the challenges, the opportunities, etc. At that point I’d sort of pinned all my hopes on being accepted into a special fellowship program for TEFL. This was sort of a change of plans, but not necessarily a bad one. The more I thought about it and talked to people the more it seemed like a BETTER plan. So I signed that offer letter.

A few months later I don’t regret my decision. Of course there are wrinkles to every new job. (See “The Cons”) With a fuller understanding of what has been done and what they are hoping to see in the future I feel slightly overwhelmed.

This is a job with a lot of potential. I have a lot of freedom to create something cool. That’s great. It wouldn’t be that fun to be denied the opportunity to make changes and be creative. At the outset though I think I’d prefer a little less freedom as it’s a lot to try to create something while finding your feet.

I will probably need the year—one full cycle—to find those feet of mine. Which makes this job not really seem like a year position. If you put in all that work are you really going to want to walk away right at the point where you know enough to be able to improve it? But am I committed to staying in China longer? (I mean, REALLY, I’m already going on three years when I never expected to be in China at all.) And my feelings towards China are quite complex, emotional, and therefore messy.

And this all seems like way too heavy of thinking for a job that has only just—and I mean JUST—begun. I haven’t even started classes yet. So think of this as a mental and emotional snapshot of me on this date and at this time: August 31, 2013 at 2:38 PM. It will be interesting to return to this post in a few months of so to reflect on my changing thoughts and emotions. I will endeavor to keep you updated.

*For various reasons, I don’t really feel comfortable connecting my blog with the name of the university as I consider this a personal rather than a professional place of reflection. And I don’t want to get sued by anyone. Or fired.

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Campus Life, China, Travel, University Teaching

End of an Era

June was a time of good-byes. Goodbye to another semester, but more importantly to my students, friends, and colleagues in Zhuhai. At that point I knew I would not be returning in the fall. So not only was there the usual end-of-the-semester madness of marking papers and final exams, but there was also a great deal of paperwork for the new job (to be explained), packing up of my apartment, and all those aforementioned goodbyes.

I came to Zhuhai in September of 2011. It was my first time to even visit China, much less to live there. I remember how the entire flight to China (San Francisco –> Vancouver –> Beijing –> Zhuhai) I was a mess, truly a ball of nerves. Even after arriving, there was quite a long nervous period of adjustment. It took time to get comfortable, to make friends, and to understand the ropes at the university. My relative comfort at the end of my first year was hard-won. I would never have expected that I would return for a second year. But I did. And I had a great year.

The best part of Zhuhai was definitely the people. It would not have been the same without my wonderful friend Sarah, with whom I took innumerable long walks and drank enough Nescafe to float a boat or two. And Stephen, the Kiwi I met on my first day, who introduced me to so much of China and took me along on many an adventure. The three of us had so many great trips and many a comfortable day around campus and town. Sniff, sniff. I’ll miss them!

Then there was the wider circle of other foreign teachers, some positively kooky, others lots of fun, with whom I shared many a conversation and meal or just guzzled cheap Tsingtaos with.

Then there were my local colleagues in the department, English teachers who reached out to me at the very beginning and became good friends. Vivid personalities all around who gave me better understanding of local culture and just how things worked (or didn’t work) in China. I owe them big time for all their many kindnesses to me and all those meals that they insisted on paying for! (I must discuss the “hosting” issue in China sometime.)

And the students. Ah! The students. With their wonderful English names, Chinese sense of style and genius for asking questions deemed inappropriate from an American standpoint. In my mere four semesters at BNUZ I estimate I taught somewhere around 2500 students. Of those only a few became good friends, but many remained kind, familiar faces around campus that always said hello. Those that became friends will hopefully remain friends for a long time.

Let’s not forget Zhuhai herself, who was not without her own charm. I remember looking up Zhuhai on a map and being pleased that it was a coastal city. It also lived up to its reputation of being a green, comfortably small city by Chinese standards, with lovely landscaping everywhere and year-round greenery due to its semi-tropical climate. I think I might regret leaving Zhuhai in the near future. I’m understanding now why students would go on and on about the “great environment.”

I’ll certainly miss our beautiful university campus—I didn’t know how good I had it! We may have not been the best university academically speaking, but I think our campus must make at least some most-beautiful lists.

And I’ll certainly miss Cantonese food, especially all those lovely perfectly prepared vegetable. Sigh. And morning tea. And washing my dishes at restaurants. And listening to them talk on their cellphones in public places.

Yes, it was a great two years. And it was hard to leave. But—as they say—it was time. If I stayed longer in Zhuhai I think it would’ve been because I was afraid to move on. Just because something is good does not mean that the next thing will not also be good—or maybe even better! So here’s to the also-good or even better!

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Campus Life, China, Weather

Whatever the Weather

On Thursday nights I go to play badminton at the gym with some teacher friends. I originally typed ‘indoor gym’, but there was some backspace action, because it really isn’t an indoor gym. It is a building with a roof, but open on the sides. What to call it? The semi-enclosed gym? The indoor-outdoor gym?

The gym has badminton and basketball courts, a small sea of ping pong tables, a jogging track on the 2nd floor, and room for various martial arts classes to distract me with their hyah-ing. I applaud the forethought of having a place to do all these activities when it is raining. As Zhuhai has a semi-tropical climate, it is indeed raining quite a lot here. In the autumn there is always the chance of typhoons and in the spring there is a very distinct rainy season.

Last year I thought one month of torrential rain was bad. I must’ve made the mistake of asking for more patience as it has certainly been tested by the last TWO months of rain. Seriously. The end of rainy season was perhaps dramatically punctuated by an official Red Storm warning and a morning of canceled classes last week. There was one more fitful downpour on Tuesday, but it appears we might have finally cleared the rain. I swear there cannot be a drop of precipitation left up there.

The rain began to feel a bit like a biblical plague. Maybe not 40 straight days and nights, but I think we got pretty close. Those of us not used to such weather might have been tempted to go hunt down the disobedient Jonah causing all this bad weather and send him down the overflowing storm drain to his “Ninevah” or large water-based mammal. Whichever he/she encountered first.

So, again, it is great to be able to play your sport of choice regardless of rain or no rain. However. HOWEVER. However. I don’t understand having an open-air gym in a climate that at least 6 months out of the year has temperatures over 80 degrees and humidity of equal or greater percentage.

With the end of the rain, the temperature just keeps climbing. Though I greatly enjoy my badminton Thursday nights, the “gym” is the next closest thing to the Inferno itself. Two hours of vigorous badminton leave me absolutely dripping. No, this is not hyperbole. Full on streams running down my face and back. I didn’t know this was actually possible. I thought this state could only be achieved by people in Gatorade commercials. Oh, no! You too can experience this novel state in picturesque southern China! Swim in the seas of . . . your own sweat?

High temperatures and impending rain have also resulted in another intriguing “plague” on several occasions. Shortly before the rain would begin, small winged insects—“locusts”—would appear out of nowhere and blanket the gym. One second you’re playing badminton and the next you’re dancing around like a fool swinging your racket ineffectively at the bugs all around you and on you. On your shirt, on your pants, sticking to your sweaty arms, getting IN YOUR HAIR! Ugh! Ugh! UGH! It’s enough to make you throw down your racket –no, wait, I can’t throw down my racket because it’s not mine. Okay, it’s enough to make you throw up your arms—no, can’t do that either because then I’ll get bugs there, too! Fine, it’s enough to make you run away, screaming, into the night. That I can do. Maybe no screaming and maybe not full-on running, but on those buggy occasions I certainly did high-tail it out of there. And my colleagues were not far behind.

Speaking of plagues, have I mentioned the frogs? More to come . . .

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